Shutter Priority Mode

All posts tagged Shutter Priority Mode

With summer upon us a frequent activity of mine and I’m sure many others is visiting a theme or amusement park with family and friends. The wealth of colors, sights, people, shapes, and the occasional furry bear make theme parks an excellent venue for taking some really amazing photos. However, it is important to make sure that you’re using the right settings on your camera. Not only to make sure you get a great shot, but also to make sure that you do not disturb others around you who are trying to enjoy the ride!

The idea for this article came out of a trip I recently took to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. More specifically while riding one of my favorite attractions, Spaceship Earth, at EPCOT. You know Spaceship Earth it’s the one that people claim looks like a “big golf ball”. In actuality it is one of the world’s largest geodesic spheres. It is while riding this iconic attraction that an incident occurred that prompted me to write this post.

Spaceship Earth

In general, this particular blog post is aimed at anybody who will be visiting a theme park and taking photos in the near future.

However, more specifically this post is aimed at the gentleman of average-description who was sitting 4 cars behind me on June 30th, 2010 at precisely 1:34 PM in the afternoon who decided it would be a bright idea to continually use his flash approximately every 10 seconds while taking photos, thus ruining the ride for not only me, but the other 25 people around me who were all taking the “slow-moving journey through the history of civilization” that is Spaceship Earth!

I can only hope that this man is a reader of my blog, and if so, my friend, you’d better listen up because I’m talking directly to you on this one! *End of rant*

For those who don’t know, Spaceship Earth is what is known as a “dark ride”. These types of rides usually take place in some sort of a vehicle, which brings you past various scenes of a story, such as a haunted house. The key thing that some people don’t seem to fully understand is the “dark” concept.

These rides are meant to take place in the dark and often times have extremely low-light levels. Naturally, it is very difficult to take photographs under these conditions and have them come out. This, I assume, is why there are people who take photos in these “dark rides” with their flash on.

There is a better way. Let me show you some techniques that you can use on “dark rides”. Not only to help you take better photos, but also so that you’ll be able to take the photos you want without disturbing the other people around you who are also trying to enjoy the attraction.

There is also a third reason why you shouldn’t use flash on “dark rides”. This is because the photos will never look like what you see on the ride. The people who create these rides use special lighting, and projections to create all the effects that you see, and to give the scene an illusion of realism. When you take a photo your flash is so strong that often times it overpowers all of these special effects and you end up with a photo of a very fake looking mannequin.

Let me give you an example…at the very top of the Spaceship Earth ride is a beautiful projection of the planet Earth. Naturally, everyone loves to take a picture of it. And of course there is always one person who will ruin the scene with their flash.

What this person doesn’t understand is that they just took a photo of a big white nothing! You see the image of planet Earth on the ride is a digital projection, like when you watch a movie. So when you shoot your flash at it, it ends up being so bright that it drowns out the projector and all you get is a photo of a blank white screen.


Image of Earth (f/1.8, 1/10s, 1600 ISO)

Earth with Flash

Image of Earth taken with Flash

As you can see from the images above clearly the flash doesn’t work in this type of situation, and all you have done is upset the other riders around you. So how can we get a nice photo of the Earth projection or any other scene in a “dark ride”? The first step is to turn off the flash! Every camera has a way of doing this, usually you should look for this symbol on your camera. This is where you can change the flash setting on your camera to OFF .

Once you have your flash off, there are some other settings on your camera that need to be “tweaked”. You’ll want to increase your ISO. We’ve talked briefly about ISO before. ISO is the setting that controls how sensitive to light the sensor on your digital camera is. If you’re using a film camera the ISO is determined by the type of film you place in your camera. The higher the ISO that you use, the more sensitive it makes your camera to light an therefore makes it easier to take photos in low-light.

Great so let’s crank our ISO setting to full blast and take some “dark ride” photos. Wait just a minute, it’s not quite as simple as that. You see although increasing the ISO makes our cameras more sensitive to the light coming through the lens, it has a very detrimental side effect that we must take into account.

Increasing the ISO also increases the amount of noise in your photo. This means that if you set your ISO too high your photo will turn into a big grainy, noisy mess. What’s worse is you won’t realize this until you download the photos to your computer, because on your cameras tiny little screen everything looks sharp and clear.

Spaceship Earth Scene with ISO set too high

Fear not though, today’s modern digital cameras can usually use ISO settings as high as 1200-1800 without showing any noise at all. In addition, camera manufacturers are pushing the ISO envelope all the time, creating better and better sensors that can take high ISO’s without showing any noise at all. Just this year 2 of the major camera manufacturers came out with cameras whose maximum ISO settings are over 100,000!

Changing our ISO will allow us to take better photos without flash, but what other settings do we need to know about when taking photos on “dark rides”? As you know, in nearly all “dark rides” there is some sort of movement or vehicle that you travel in, this is the “ride” part of the “dark ride”. When you leave your camera on it’s automatic settings it wants to slow down your shutter speed so that it can allow the most light possible into your camera.

Your camera’s shutter speed controls how long the sensor or film in your camera is exposed to light. Slowing the shutter speed down will allow more light to enter your camera because the shutter is open for a longer period of time which makes for better photos. There’s only one problem, when you combine a slow shutter with the movement of a “dark ride”, you get blur. Basically your photos would be a big blurry mess if you simply used your camera’s automatic settings on a “dark ride”

In order to correct this, we must tell the camera which shutter speed we’d like it to use. This way we can pick one that’s slow enough to be able to take decent photos in low-light but still fast enough so that you don’t get any blur from the moving ride vehicle. To do this we must put the camera into Shutter-Priority Mode, or S-Mode. You should be aware that not all cameras have an S-Mode setting on them. For those that don’t you can usually use either a “Night Mode” setting or “Portrait Mode” setting on your camera. These modes limit how slow the shutter speed will get so you can prevent or eliminate blur.

For those of you with cameras that have a Shutter-Priority Mode I would recommend using a shutter speed of 1/15 – 1/30 of a second. I find that setting is usually sufficient to get a nicely exposed photo while eliminating blur. If you’re not sure what kind of settings your camera has, consult with your owner’s manual to see if it has an S-Mode setting, and to see what other exposure presets it may contain.

Some digital cameras today come with over 15 programmed exposure modes. With everything from a “beach” to a “fireworks” setting there should be one offered on your camera that will allow you to limit your shutter speed. For more information about S-Mode you can click here to view our previous blog post about it.

SSE Scene

Properly exposed scene without flash (ISO 1600, 1/10s, f/2.8)

As you can see from the above photo when you combine a high ISO with the proper shutter speed you can walk away with a great photo of any “dark ride” without using your flash, just as the designers intended the scene to look. And more importantly, without disturbing your fellow riders! So the next time you find yourself at Epcot, riding on Spaceship Earth, I beg you, please keep in mind what we’ve discussed here today. Not only will it help you take better photos, but as you can see Mr. average description gentleman sitting 4 cars behind me, I might just be the one who is on the receiving end of your flash bursts.

We’ve finally made it to the end of our 5-part series on exposure modes. We finish with the king of all creativity, Manual Mode. This is the mode that lets your knowledge of photography and creativity shine through. Manual Mode is the one where you basically tell the camera to “shut-up” and let you do the driving.

Are you in a dark room where the camera is telling you it’s too dark to make  a proper exposure? No problem, Manual Mode will let you take that photo. Do you want to take a photo with a very deep depth of field and also freeze the action, but don’t have enough light? Switch to Manual Mode, and give it a shot, you’re not paying for film!

Ok ok, so Manual Mode is not a magical cure for exposure problems, but it does allow you to go out of your camera’s, and possibly your, comfort zone to take some photos that the camera might not allow you to take while in one of the other exposure modes.

Let’s review a bit…we’ve already learned about the other 3 exposure modes..

Programmed Auto Mode (P-Mode) your camera does all the thinking. Aperture and shutter speed are set for you automatically.

Aperture Mode (A-Mode) you set the aperture and the camera determines the shutter speed for you.

Shutter Mode (S-Mode) does just the opposite, you set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture value.

By now I’m sure you have guessed that in Manual Mode (M-Mode) you’re flying solo. You’re responsible for  setting both the aperture and the shutter speed yourself. That’s a big responsibility! Are you ready for it? Can you handle it? I think you can.

Even if you don’t think you’re quite ready, I implore you to try Manual Mode. Nothing will teach you about exposure settings and the relationship between aperture value and shutter speed faster than being out there on your own making your own exposure settings.

Plus, if you make a mistake, you might it’s a part of life, because you’re shooting digital it costs you nothing to try, and it’ll be our little secret if it doesn’t turn out quite right the first time. If you’re shooting film however, you may want to borrow your friend’s digital camera to try it out. You’ll most likely be going through a lot of frames, plus the digital camera allows you to get instant feedback, instead of having to wait for the film to be developed to see what worked and what didn’t.

The toughest thing to shooting in Manual Mode is picking a starting point. When choosing your aperture and shutter speed where do you begin? It can be very overwhelming. Sometimes when shooting in Manual Mode professional photographers will use a light meter. A light meter is a hand-held device that measures the light in the scene around you and gives you values for what your aperture and shutter speed should be.

Now wait a minute…that sounds just like what your camera does when it is in P-Mode. Well you’re right, your camera has a built-in light meter which is how it determines the proper exposure values for the scene you are shooting. So what do you do when you’re new to Manual Mode and your light meter is in the shop? Put your camera in P-Mode and press the shutter down half-way.

This is going to give you an exposure reading. In P-Mode the camera will use it’s built-in light meter to “read” or “meter” the scene and tell you the aperture and shutter values that it comes up with. So now armed with this new information we can switch back to Manual Mode and plug in those values we just got from the camera’s built-in light meter. You now have an excellent starting point for setting up your shot in Manual Mode.

You know these values are going to give you a relatively decent exposure to begin with, so now you can start getting creative by varying either the aperture value or shutter speed to achieve your desired results. Want a shallower depth-of-field? Go ahead and dial in a larger aperture value, just keep in mind that you’ll need to adjust your shutter speed to keep your exposure well balanced.

A good rule-of-thumb to remember is that for every full stop of aperture value you increase or decrease you should also change your shutter speed by a full stop to maintain the same Exposure Value (EV). We learned about this a while back when we discussed reciprocity.

So for example, if our light meter (built-in or hand-held) chooses an aperture of f/8 and a shutter speed of 1/125 and we want a shallower depth-of-field. We can change our aperture value to f/4. That is a change of 2 full stops. So in order to keep the same Exposure Value (EV) we will need to raise our shutter speed by 2 full stops bringing us to a shutter speed of f/500.

This is because when we make our aperture value larger by a full stop we are letting in double the light. Since we changed our aperture from f/8 to f/4, 2 full stops, we are now letting in 4 times the light at f/4 than we did at f/8. So to compensate we use a faster shutter speed by 2 stops from 1/125 to 1/500. This causes 1/4 of the light to be let in at 1/500 than we had at 1/125 which cancels out the 4 times more light coming in from our aperture value.

How do I know that is 2 full stops you ask? Well I have included a chart at the end of this article that shows the full stop values for both aperture and shutter speed. Some high-end cameras will let you change your aperture or shutter speed in 1/2 or 1/3 stops as well, but all cameras will let you dial in full stop values.

Manual Mode also comes in very handy when shooting with flash, especially external flash. A full discussion on shooting with external flash is a topic for another blog post, but we’ll touch on it briefly. When shooting with an external flash the cameras light meter may not take this into account. Therefore it might choose a very slow shutter speed automatically for you because it is metering the available light in the scene. The light meter may not know that an external flash will be used. This is the perfect time for Manual Mode.

By shooting the scene in Manual Mode you are able to tell the camera that you would like to use a faster shutter speed. We know this still will result in a good exposure because the flash is going to provide quite a bit of light to our scene. Shooting in Manual Mode let’s you choose the shutter speed and also the aperture value that will work for your flash lit scene.

There are some people who are perfectly content taking all of their photos in P-Mode and letting the camera do all their thinking. Most of the time this yields decent photos. However, you cannot truly begin to explore the creative possibilities of photography or take your photos to the next level until you turn that dial and try shooting in one of the other 3 modes.

Maybe you feel Manual Mode is a bit too much for you to try right now, but Aperture Priority Mode or Shutter Priority Mode are just begging for you to give them a shot. They let you start taking control of the exposure in your photos without having to fly solo. And as with most things, there is no better way to fully understand your cameras exposure modes than to get out there and shoot as much as you can!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this multi-part series about exposure modes, even if the end was a long time coming. Feel free to ask questions, leave comments, and share your creative photos. Until next time.

Exposure Value Chart

Chart of full stop values and Exposure Values (EV), Courtesy of thecrosseyedbear on Flickr

I’d like to continue our series of discussions on exposure-modes. Yes, I know with the last installment over 6 months ago, it can’t really be called a continuation. Perhaps an extension, extended-leave, or vacation, whatever you’d like to call it we’re going to chat about our next semi-manual exposure mode, Shutter Priority Mode (S).

Shutter Priority Mode or S-Mode functions very similarly to Aperture Priority Mode or A-Mode, it just does it from another point of view. Shutter Priority Mode allows you to manually set the shutter speed of the camera, or how long the shutter will remain open when you take a photo. In Shutter Priority Mode the camera will automatically set the aperture for you based upon the shutter speed that you choose.

Shutter speed is measured in time (seconds). Usually very small parts of a second such as 1/500th of a second, or 1/1000th of a second for shooting in very bright conditions, such as high noon on a bright sunny day. Or in full seconds such as 1 second or 30 seconds for shooting in low-light conditions, such as indoors by candle-light.

The shorter the shutter remains open for, the faster the shutter speed. For example, a shutter speed of 1/250 means that I could take roughly 4 photos in the same amount of time than if I was using a shutter speed of 1 second. This is because at a shutter speed of 1/250 the shutter is open nearly 4 times shorter than if I was using a shutter speed of 1 second; hence we say that 1/250 is a faster shutter speed than 1s.

By using a faster shutter speed, the cameras shutter will be open for a shorter amount of time, which means less light will be allowed to hit your digital sensor, or film. This is why we use faster shutter speeds when we are shooting in bright conditions. When we use a slow shutter speed, the shutter remains open longer and therefore lets more light into the camera to hit your digital sensor or film.

Now I know what you must be thinking at this point…”Scott this is all very fine and good information, but if I wanted to change the amount of light that enters my camera I could’ve just used the Aperture Mode that I learned about 6 months ago and not have wasted my time with the last 4 paragraphs.”

It is true that aperture also controls the amount of light entering your camera by varying the size of the shutter, and you will recall from our earlier discussions that aperture size and shutter speed are linked together. So why would you want to change the shutter speed instead of the aperture?

Well just like varying your aperture controls your depth-of-field, shutter speed has a side-effect as well. Changing your shutter speed allows you to “freeze” the action in your photos. The faster the shutter speed the more “frozen” your subject will be.

Imagine if  you were trying to photograph your child in his or her first little league game. They are about to make the winning slide into home plate. By using a very fast shutter speed we would be able toshow the exact instant their body touches the plate, and it would be extremely sharp and in focus.

Some digital cameras that do not have a Shutter Priority Mode may have a “sports setting”. Using the “sports setting” will force your camera to take photos using a fast shutter speed, usually 1/500 of a second or greater. Just keep in mind that you’ll need bright sunlight in order to shoot at such a fast shutter speed.

Take a look at this photo of a car doing aerial stunts, caught in mid-jump. Shooting with a very fast shutter speed, 1/800 in this case allowed me to “freeze” the action of the car while making sure it retained sharp detail. Also notice that the photo was taken in very bright sunlight as anything less than that would have yielded a photo with blur.

Jumping Car

“Frozen” Jumping Car, 1/800

So now that we know some exciting things that we can do with fast shutter speeds, when are some appropriate times to use slow shutter speeds? Slow shutter speeds allow you to create some very beautiful artistic effects in your photographs.

Imagine a beautiful waterfall cascading into a pool of water. If we used a fast shutter speed to shoot the waterfall we would end up with a very boring photo of sharp, “frozen” water. All of the beauty of that waterfall rushing over the mountain would be lost. There would be no sense of motion.

We can correct this by using a slow shutter speed. If we shoot the waterfall using a shutter speed of say 2 seconds, we will retain all of the motion and power that waterfall has, and end up with a beautiful photo of a nice silky waterfall. Just resist the urge to dive in, remember your camera doesn’t like water. 🙂

In the photo of a carousel race horse below, we are able to convey a sense of the motion of the carousel to the viewer by using a slow shutter speed. Although the main horse is relatively sharp and in focus, if you look to the other race horses moving around in the background you’ll notice they all have motion blurs, thanks to the slow shutter speed that was chosen. The slow shutter speed helps to instantly evoke thoughts of a moving carousel to anyone looking at the photo.


Derby Horse with Blur 1/30

Derby Horse with Blur 1/30

Slower shutter speeds are also used in low-light situations. It is important to remember that our cameras have a very different definition of low-light than we do. Think about it, how many times have you been in what you would consider a perfectly bright house, but when you try to take a photo, your camera almost always wants to pop up that flash! This is because our eyes are much more sensitive to light than even the most high-end camera.

Have you ever tried taking that same photo without the flash? It usually winds up dark and blurry. This is because your camera naturally chooses a slow shutter speed. With such a slow shutter speed your subjects will not be “frozen” so even the slightest movement of either them or you causes blur.

This is why god invented tripods. It was dark in those tents in biblical times, how else were the photos going to be sharp 🙂

For those of us with cameras that don’t have an S-Mode, your camera might have a “night mode”. When you place your camera in “night mode” it forces the camera to shoot at a slow shutter speed, usually 1/30 or slower. How many times have you heard someone complain “my camera is broken, every time I shoot in night mode my photos come out blurry”! Now you know why. You weren’t one of those people were you? 🙂

Now that you have a new creative tool in your photography belt, I implore you to go out and give it a try! Next time we’ll combine the best of Aperture Priority Mode and the best of Shutter Priority Mode into one big manual mode that we call…well we just call it Manual Mode 🙂